By Sandy Strehlou
There is a small, run-down, wooden hipped-roof house on Second Street in Friday Harbor. It is a sad little house that was once a charming cottage with a manicured lawn and a small covered porch with two wooden Doric columns flanking the front door.
Today, with its foundation sagging and most of its interior crafted woodwork long gone, it is slated to be demolished later this month.
Built around 1910, the cottage’s most notable owner was a journalist and archivist named Virgil Frits (c1882-1971). It is no exaggeration to say that Frits had his finger on the pulse of almost everything that happened in Friday Harbor between 1907 and 1958. He was the publisher and editor of the Friday Harbor Journal newspaper for 51 years, and the deputy town clerk for 47 years.
Frits documented life and government during Friday Harbor’s early years. Today, most of what we know about early Friday Harbor comes from his written and printed accounts of the day.
Frits lived in the little house on Second Street for 40 years, a half block from town hall and less than two blocks from his tiny newspaper office downhill on Spring Street.
I like to think of him rising in the morning, eating breakfast with his wife Maude, and then setting out for work, encountering many an islander and collecting newsworthy tidbits along the way. He probably entertained visitors to his office with coffee while hearing reports on the sick, the dying, marriages, births, birthdays, travels, and anniversaries. Each week Frits recorded the daily events of small-town island life. The national, state and regional news that newspaperman Frits thought worth reporting is there too, along with ads for liver remedies, the weather, dentists, and pigs for sale.
As deputy town clerk, Virgil’s tidy cursive handwriting fills volumes of leather-bound town council minute books. Every council vote, every infrastructure decision, every decision to expend funds and every new council election is recorded there.
A house is just a house, except to the people who lived their lives within it. But a house, an old hotel, a bank, a school, a cluster of abandoned fruit trees can be much more. They give us a reason to stop in the midst of our busy days to ask “what happened here?” They are the images that float in our memory of a place, a town. Like an echo reminding us that we are not all that there is or was, these are the buildings and memories that we will look for years later to help us find our bearings.
We may not always agree that an old building is savable, for the cost of doing so will certainly always weigh most heavily on the one writing the check. But losing historic landmarks matters, for piece by piece we give up a bit of a story that belongs to us all--past, present and future.
How we honor the past going forward is equally important. Hopefully we can work together to find ways to save other precious landmarks while they can still be preserved, and prevent our knowledge of local history from slipping away.
In the meantime, take a minute to visit the Frits House on Second Street, where it has stood steadfast for 100 years, and remember Virgil Frits.
— Editor’s note: Sandy Strehlou is historic preservation coordinator for the Town of Friday Harbor.